Astorino versus Cuomo’s Republican allies

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Rob Astorino. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Rob Astorino and Dean Skelos have ostensibly made up, after a very public spat this past week. But the peace between the state’s two highest-profile Republicans at the moment is an uneasy one.

The trouble started when Astorino stood on the Capitol steps last Monday and unveiled the very first comprehensive public policy proposal of his campaign to oust Andrew Cuomo. The plan had nothing to do with taxes, the economy, budgeting or anything else that falls squarely under the governor’s purview.

Instead, Astorino, the Republican county executive of Westchester took a direct shot at the Legislature, releasing a 10-point ethics reform package that called for everything from term limits and a less generous state pension system for state lawmakers to an overhaul of the state’s Byzantine campaign finance laws.

Astorino said the corruption by government officials in New York “has reached a staggering level of embarrassment,” and he blamed Cuomo for failing to keep his promise to clean up Albany.

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Skelos, the Republican co-leader of the Senate, apparently did not enjoy being a prop in Astorino’s attacks on Albany’s otherwise Democratic establishment, and took particular exception to Astorino’s plan. And Skelos told him so in a not-too-friendly phone call, according to a source familiar with the discussion.

That very same day, Skelos praised Cuomo’s “leadership,” following Moody’s announcement that it had raised New York’s general obligation bond rating to its highest level since the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, lauding the governor for working with the Legislature to move the state “in the right direction.”

This directly contradicted Astorino’s central campaign theme, that New York is going to economic hell in a handbasket under Cuomo.

The Astorino campaign interpreted Skelos’ comments as a direct shot and duly responded, via a tweet from the candidate’s top consultant Bill O’Reilly, by calling Skelos the governor’s “prison punk.”

O’Reilly followed up with a Newsday column accusing the Senate Republicans of being part of the problem in Albany and adopting a “surrender stance” when dealing with the governor. Astorino publicly chastised his consultant for the “punk” comment. But he neither fired O’Reilly—notwithstanding what a GOP source said were efforts by the Senate Republicans to get him to do so—nor called on his consultant to apologize.

(O’Reilly told Gannett shortly afterward that he’s considering running for office himself, for the State Senate seat being vacated by Putnam County Republican Greg Ball. He subsequently sent out a statement saying that "there will be no state senate run for me.")

In an interview with Time Warner Cable News Buffalo, Astorino called Skelos a “good man,” and said, “If not for the Republican Senate we would have a state that’s losing even worse than it is today.

“They’ve at least been able to hold the governor and the New York City Assembly members in check,” Astorino continued. “But going forward, look, we need the Republicans in the Senate to do well, and they need me to do well, quite frankly.”

O’Reilly, meanwhile, said that the campaign meant to continue as it started.

“We are going to move forward with a bold reform track, and we are hopeful that the Senate Republicans will be along with us,” O’Reilly said. “If they are not, we are not veering off course. We are going to call things as they see them...we're not going to accept managing decline in the state anymore.”

This is an almost Paladino-esque approach. Remember the “mad as hell” man from Buffalo who pledged to wield order in Albany with a baseball bat if elected in 2010?

After defeating the G.O.P.’s preferred candidate, a former congressman named Rick Lazio who, like Skelos, comes from Long Island, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino carried a dozen of New York’s 62 counties in the November general election, most of them in his home base of Western New York.

He still lost in a landslide to Cuomo.

Now, Paladino, who once threatened to primary the Westchester County executive if he didn’t call for the ouster of Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, says Astorino has nothing to lose—and possibly quite a lot to gain—by doing the same.

“They’ll do nothing to help get Rob elected; they’ve already declared their allegiance to the governor,” Paladino said of the Senate Republicans. “We have a perfect storm this year. … I didn’t have a perfect storm. I didn’t have Andrew Cuomo making all these mistake, one after the other.”

Paladino said he’s not advising the Astorino campaign on its anti-Senate G.O.P. tactics, but he’s definitely cheering from the sidelines.

“The only thing that's going to give any hope for the Republican Party in New York State is a total cleansing of these morons in the Senate who think they're going to drag us into the Democratic fold,” Paladino said.

Cuomo himself ran against Albany, and the Legislature, in 2010. He launched his campaign in the shadow of the Tweed Courthouse, named for the corrupt political boss of Tammany Hall, and said: “Unfortunately, Albany’s antics today could make Boss Tweed blush. Our message today is simple. Enough is enough.”

Since then, there have been quite a few high-profile legislative corruption cases, and when lawmakers balked at passing Cuomo’s ethics package to address that, he created a Moreland Commission to investigate them.

But then Cuomo cut the commission’s efforts short, agreeing to shut the body down in exchange for the Legislature’s approval of some, but not all, of his ethics reform proposals. So now Cuomo is an entrenched part of the Albany establishment with a record of both achievements and failures to defend.

Ironically, Cuomo and Astorino find themselves in a similar position, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for their respective candidacies among certain key segments of their parties. It’s no secret that there’s no love lost for Cuomo on the left.

Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who lost the Working Families Party nod to the governor, is now mounting a Democratic primary challenge against him. But it’s a protest challenge, even if it’s based on a level of discontent that’s perfectly palpable. Like the short-lived W.F.P. rebellion, Cuomo will say why he has to negate the threat, before turning his attention to general election margin-building.

It’s also no secret that there’s plenty of dislike for the governor among the Democratic establishment. But Cuomo doesn’t need to be loved by his fellow Democrats, as long as they fear him, and recognize that they need his support more than he needs theirs.

At the end of the day, Cuomo will have the Democrat nomination, and the enormous partisan advantage that confers in New York. He’ll also have far better name recognition among New Yorkers than Astorino, and has such a massive lead in the fund-raising race—$33 million and counting, as of mid-January—that he can afford to spend money to define Astorino for New Yorkers before Astorino has a chance to do so himself.

Just this week, the state Democratic Party, acting as Cuomo’s surrogate, launched a new TV ad branding Astorino an “ultraconservative” and slamming him for the fact that Westchester has some of the highest property taxes in the state.

Cuomo may not have the loyalty of all of his party, in other words, but he clearly believes that he has enough of it.

By contrast, Astorino, who can ill afford any fracturing of his prospective base of support, has yet to unite his party behind him. Notwithstanding his tenuous peace with Skelos, his Republican support is far from solid.

Polls show that only 24 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of their party’s gubernatorial nominee, while a whopping 70 percent said they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion.

Only 54 percent of Republicans polled said they would vote for Astorino on either the G.O.P. or Conservative lines if the election were held today, while 25 percent said they would choose Cuomo on either the Democratic, Independence or Working Families Party lines.

Astorino is hoping to capitalize on the very real grassroots opposition to Cuomo around the state. But as a relative unknown outside Westchester, doing so could be easier if he had a local Republican legislator to appear by his side.

But finding volunteers might be difficult, especially if he keeps pushing his “Albany is broken” theme while they’re seeking re-election based on a record of accomplishment achieved by partnering with Cuomo.

“To be Republicans in government in this state is very tough,” former Senate G.O.P. spokesman John McArdle said during a recent appearance on Time Warner Cable News’ Capital Tonight.

“People may not like the Legislature as a whole, but they like their individual Republican senator. When Rob Astorino is out campaigning for governor, it would serve him [more] wisely to invite local Republican senators who have done a good job for their constituents and carried those districts ... than to take what his campaign manager's advice may be, which is to in effect campaign against them.”

He added, “I don't think that was a very smart move.”

Liz Benjamin hosts "Capital Tonight" each weeknight on the Time Warner Cable News stations across upstate New York.